Psalm 136 recalls the Lord’s mercy in the actions of the Creator and the Savior as the sacred psalmist raises a joyful acclamation of praise for the eternal goodness of God. As we listen to the voice of God, our prayer must accompany every meditative path even when we approach biblical texts that are not actually formulas prepared for liturgical recitation. The Sacred Scriptures are only respected when we reverently open our hearts in full obedience to the Word of God so that it can penetrate us deeply as a fruitful seed and transform our consciences, making them merciful. This is the fruit of prayerful listening.
In Psalm 136 the contemplation of God’s benevolent action begins with an emphasis on the greatness of the Creator’s works, starting with the immensity of the heavens (vv. 4-9); it then evokes the great epic of the Exodus where the Lord’s powerful hand brings about victory over the “mighty” kings of the earth (vv. 10-22). The psalm concludes its litany of thanksgiving remembering the gift of the “small” in the daily bread. One of the most significant elements of our biblical faith is the tension between the Lord’s infinite power – celebrated with an abundance of superlative attributes connected with his Name (“God of gods, Lord of lords” vv.2-3) – and the humble reality of his servant (v.22) on whom divine greatness is bestowed. It is the paradoxical way of our God’s revelation, stimulating our reflective attention and belief.
For Christians the event of the Incarnation – the descent of the Most High into the poverty of human flesh – is the sublime peak of this divine economy, full of humility, completely aimed at salvation and so fully expressing mercy. To welcome with greater awareness one of the central mysteries of our Creed, it is good to follow the paths that prophetically prepared its coming; it is necessary to understand that the humbling even unto death on a cross of the one who was “in the form of God” (Phil 2: 6-8) is the very fulfillment of the Lord’s plan written from time eternal.
Biblical narration is a repeated sequence of “beginnings,” of facts that are to be considered as happening “in the beginning” not just of a short cycle but of the entire historical process, configuring it according to its own precise meaning. There are many beginnings and so the story narrated by the author is complicated and full of complementary meanings. There is the absolute beginning of the world (Gen 1) and another after the flood (Gen 9); there is the beginning of the human story with the sin of Adam and the consequent curse (Gen 3), and there is also the event of Adam inaugurating the history of blessing based on faith and justice (Gen 12-15), and so on up until Christ who for us is the beginning of salvation, while Pentecost is a new starting point for the Church filled with the Spirit.
Now let us fix our attention on the beginning of the history of the people of Israel in the belief that this “original” moment will show the way the Lord acts constantly in time, in every era, revealing thereby the Lord’s own mercy. For this purpose, rather than choosing the narration of Genesis, we look to Deuteronomy since this book is a theological synthesis of the origins of the covenant between YHWH and his people and so allows for an approach that is more organic to the theme under consideration. As we shall see, the covenant and mercy are interrelated concepts; it is in the eternal bond promised by the Lord to our forefathers that the mercy of our God is revealed limpidly. Beginning with Deuteronomy we will trace briefly a line that shows how what is written of the initial event is confirmed and strengthened through the course of history, particularly when those historical changes occur that give this same history a new configuration, or – to use other words – when it is as if the human story started anew.